Two Years A Postdoc - Making Decisions

Introduction

Today is my last day at Hopkins. I’ve been here for eight years. Just under six years for graduate school. A little over two years as a postdoc. Right now, my goal in this post is to jot down a few things I learned throughout my time as a postdoc with a focus on job applications and career preparation.

I won’t be discussing all the fun I had during my postdoc, all the awesome people I got to work with, what I worked on, or how much I’m going to miss everyone in this post. Instead, I know I enjoy hearing others stories about how they got to where they are in their careers, so my hope for this post is that by sharing a bit of my story, it may be of some help to those trying to decide on a postdoc or applying to permanent positions.

Grad School

First, the quickest little bit of background on my time in graduate school. I did my PhD in human genetics in the lab of Dan Arking at Johns Hopkins in the Institute of Genetic Medicine. I had a really great experience as a graduate student. Unfortunately, this is often not the case for graduate students (but that’s a discussion for another time).

Deciding on a Postdoc

Toward the end of my PhD, I was pretty confident I wanted to do a postdoc and mostly sure I wanted to stay in academia long term. Looking back I think I was only mostly sure because it’s scary to put what you want out into the world when you know that the jobs out there are limited. You don’t want to state your dream only to realize that it’s not going to be possible later on. Also, I like so many things! I knew that if academia didn’t work out, there would be other options that I’d most likely like too.

So, I started applying to postdocs.

Microbiome Postdocs

I cold e-mailed many people in the microbiome field. I had voraciously read the microbiome literature from 2008 through graduate school. I knew all the names in the field. I knew their papers. I knew the experiments. I knew the techniques. While I didn’t study the microbiome in my own work in grad school, I didn’t initially think that’d be a big issue.

You’re told in biology that the topic you focus on in graduate school doesn’t really matter - that graduate school is there to teach you how to think. You’re told that what you do as a postdoc is what you take with you to establish your independent career. What they don’t tell you is that people will probably expect and (reasonably) want you to have experience in their field before they allow you to do a postdoc in their lab.

Most people I emailed didn’t respond. Many who did said they didn’t have spots for me. Some of those people suggested other labs. There was a lot of rejection.

Biostats Postdoc

Aside from the microbiome field, I had an offer to do a postdoc with Jeff Leek in the biostatistics department at JHSPH. Jeff and I had met because he was on my PhD thesis committee. We had discussed the possibility of me doing a postdoc with him a year before I graduated. When offered, I tried to convince Jeff he didn’t want me. Jeff (thankfully) disagreed.

Little did Jeff know at this time he would have to constantly remind me of my abilities throughout my postdoc. (Thanks, Jeff!)

Postdoc Offers

When all was said and done, I had two really generous and promising offers - one in the microbiome field and one with Jeff. It was a tough decision, but a fortunate position in which to find myself. I felt like I was being set up for success in both places. I felt I’d have a supportive mentor regardless of the decision I made. I liked the projects I discussed with my future bosses in both places.

Ultimately, however, the projects and future opportunities are really what decided it for me. That’s not to say I wasn’t excited about the projects in both places, but I did find myself thinking about the projects Jeff and I discussed early in the morning and late at night. I was also confident Jeff and I would work well together. And, I’m sure it didn’t hurt that this postdoc wouldn’t involve a move. I love Baltimore. Leaving would be hard.

July 2016, I started my postdoc with Jeff Leek.

Good Advice

A brief aside: making decisions at life junctures such as these is tough for me. I waited until the very last day to decide where I’d go to college. I did the same when deciding where to go grad school. And, it was tough for me to decide on a postdoc. In these times, I’ve reached out to lots of others for advice.

The best pieces of advice for making important decisions like these that I’ve received are: (1) Choose the option that you won’t regret turning down later and (2) It’s worth considering which option leaves more doors open down the line.

I received a lot of other helpful (albeit situation-specific) advice, but those two pieces are pretty generalizable, and I return to them often.

Postdoc

Early on in my postdoc, Jeff had me fill out a packet of information about what I wanted after my postdoc. This made me think hard about my future career right from the very start. I enjoyed formally thinking about what the next step would be, even if I wasn’t yet certain what I wanted.

Career Guidance

Throughout my postdoc Jeff would check in about what I was thinking career-wise. I was pretty wishy-washy both with him and with myself. I just wasn’t quite sure what I most wanted yet. I didn’t think I wanted to be a PI at an R1 university, but was that just my lack of confidence and fear of failure talking? Was I selling myself short by not pursuing that route? I knew I loved teaching, but I also have loved research. But, I wasn’t sure I had the bandwidth personally to do both well at a position that demanded lots of both. Finally, about halfway through my postdoc I finally let Jeff in on what it was I wanted to do after my postdoc.

I wanted to teach.

Teaching

Now, just for some background, I had to psyche myself up to tell Jeff that I wanted to teach…which was ridiculous. Jeff had been nothing but supportive, never indicated he wanted me to follow in his direct footsteps, nor did he ever indicate even the tiniest bit that there was anything wrong with pursuing teaching. After pumping myself up and finally telling Jeff I wanted to teach, he said something along the lines of: “well, let’s get you a teaching position” and told me that my nerves were not necessary. Mentors out there: be like Jeff.

During my postdoc I taught genetics and data analysis courses. I also TA’ed (which involved teaching once a week) a biostatistics course. And, I was sold. Teaching was what I wanted to do.

Project Transition

After Jeff knew I wanted to teach, I also went into his office and discussed wanting to focus on educational projects, rather than the genomics projects we had discussed at the beginning of my postdoc. Jeff handled it like it was no big deal. We pivoted projects. I got to dedicate my time to Chromebook Data Science rather than phenopredict, which I had mostly wrapped up at that point.

Mentors out there: I totally understand that this may sound nuts. You don’t have to be like Jeff here and let your postdocs completely change projects, but, if you’re able to, that’s awesome.

I was super fortunate to always be excited about what I was working on during my postdoc and for the fact that changing interests are appreciated (and kind of the norm) in our group.

Job Market

A year after I started my postdoc, I started applying to academic positions. Now, let’s be clear: I have a weird background. I’m currently in a biostatistics department where I do data science, but my background is not in CS or math. I’m a human geneticist with a BS in biology. That’s not exactly typical. Nevertheless, there’s only one way to get a job you want! So, I applied.

I had a number of criteria in my search:

  • education or teaching-focused positions
  • in the state of CO, CA, or MD
  • in the fields of data science or genetics/genomics

Many people I talked to at this time who had been on the job market recently or who were on the job market at the same time found it odd that I was so geographically restrictive. But, I had two shots at the academic market. If I didn’t find a job I loved this go-around, I had my postdoc, a job I loved, for another year where I’d get to continue to live in Baltimore, a place I love. Seemed win-win to me.

Because of this flexibility, I decided to only apply to positions I really wanted in places where I really wanted to work.

Application Process

I got my application materials together for all the different positions. I have lots of interests, y’all, so my cover letters certainly differed from one position to the next, but were all true to who I am and what I wanted. My CV didn’t change much from one academic position to the next but did differ from the resume I used for industry positions. I’d be happy to share my application materials with anyone going on the job market who happens to be looking for more examples of others’ application materials. Feel free to email me!

Briefly, just to give you a gemeral sense of where I applied. According to my spreadsheet (yes, of course I have a spreadsheet),

  • I applied to:
    • 11 academic positions (5 CA, 5 CO, 1 MD)
    • 4 industry positions
  • I got phone or in-person interviews at:
    • 5 academic positions (45%, 3 phone; 2 in-person)
    • 3 industry positions (75%, did phone + on-site interviews at all of these)
  • I got offers from:
    • 1 academic position (9%)
    • 2 industry positions (50%)

Luckily, the academic position that I wanted was also the one where I got an offer. And, that explains why today is my last day at Hopkins. I’m bummed to leave this place that has been my home and so good to me for the last eight years, but I’m so excited to move to San Diego and get started as an assistant teaching professor at UCSD!

Final Anecdote

One last aside: I almost didn’t apply to the position at UCSD. I had opened up the job description so many times to read it over, got excited about it, but then decided I wasn’t qualified. That was dumb. I’m really glad Jeff also saw the position and gave me the encouragement I needed to apply. Qualified candidates out there who sometimes doubt their abilities: don’t be like me. Apply.

Lessons Learned

  1. Get yourself mentors who will support you in your future - whatever that future may look like.
  2. Transitioning fields from grad school to postdoc could go over like a big ole pile of bricks.
  3. Think about your career early on, but it’s ok if you don’t know right away what exactly you want.
  4. Rejection is not so bad.
  5. It’s ok to admit to yourself that you want something different than what you feel you’re supposed to want.
  6. Being an odd candidate works for some positions and not for others, and that’s ok.
  7. If you’re interested, apply!
  8. If you interview, be sure you’re thinking about how good a fit the place is for your interests and self.